Schumacher's Comeback

The winningest driver in F1 history is putting the rest of the field on notice

Before Michael Schumacher came along, Alain Prost (51 wins) and Ayrton Senna (41) were the most successful drivers in Formula One history. Another seven for Schumacher and he will have more wins than Prost and Senna combined—and on the strength of his showing at the Nürburgring, don’t bet against it. This was number 86.

Schumacher has never been one of those expressionless winners seen too often in sport. Invariably there’s a broad smile followed by a leap on the podium. Even by his own standards, though, he looked especially joyous on this occasion, and it wasn’t simply because this win came in Germany, in front of his own people.

No, there was something extra at work here. When Schumacher won two weeks ago at Imola, folk pointed out that Ferrari, even in poor seasons, is always quick there. Though Schumacher said afterward he expected to be on the pace everywhere, plenty were skeptical.

Perhaps it was hope more than anything. The Nürburgring distilled to a repeat of Imola, a fight exclusively between Schumacher and Renault’s Fernando Alonso, the two best drivers on earth, and again the Ferrari finished ahead.

It was a little different this time, though. At Imola, Alonso’s car was plainly quicker, unable to pass on a tight track. At the Nürburgring Alonso conceded the Ferrari had the edge. Thanks to his ultra-strong start to the year, he retains a 13-point lead in points, but he might be feeling a little less secure.

“Yesterday we took pole,” Alonso said after the race, “but, to be honest, I’m not quite sure how….”

No question, Schumacher was stunned by what happened at the end of qualifying. Through practice, he and his Ferrari set the pace. Alonso, unusually, had been off it. The world champion admitted it was difficult to get his car’s balance right.

In the last minute of the session, though, he put in a stunning lap, a couple of tenths inside Schumacher’s best. There was no time for Schumacher to respond—and no guarantee, either, that he could have done so.

Schumacher shrugged it off. “I’m on the front row, with a strong package, good race pace… it should be interesting tomorrow.”

On the surface these two faced no real threat from elsewhere. Clearly Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya were going to the grid with more fuel than the rest, but still fifth and ninth were not where McLaren-Mercedes wished to start.

Raikkonen had a new-spec Mercedes V8, while a resurgent Rubens Barrichello out-qualified Honda teammate Jenson Button for the first time to line up fourth on the grid. BMW’s Jacques Villeneuve was docked one starting position, from eighth to ninth, when the stewards determined he held up an irate Giancarlo Fisichella on what should have been the Renault driver’s quickest lap.

Before qualifying, both Williams-Cosworths underwent engine changes, resulting in a loss of 10 grid slots for both Mark Webber and Nico Rosberg.

After qualifying, there were suggestions that perhaps Renault had planned a shorter first race stint than usual. While Alonso comfortably led the points, this was the first time he had started a 2006 race on the front row, let alone from pole. If he seemed as confident as ever, though, he allowed that he was expecting the fight with Schumacher to be close. “We’ve had good pace in the long runs—but so also has Michael. Ferrari seem to be right back….”

In splendid spring weather, there was a bigger crowd at the Nürburgring than for many years. Even his own people grew bored with Schumacher’s endless winning two and three years ago, but after a horrible 2005 season, they flocked in to see his latest quest to defeat the relentless Alonso.

The Renault, with its catapult starting ability, led into the first turn, and though it looked momentarily as if the two Ferraris might touch, Felipe Massa—more impressive by the race—dutifully fell into line behind Schumacher. Button was fourth, followed by Raikkonen, Jarno Trulli and Villeneuve.

On the first lap, Ralf Schumacher clouted Tonio Liuzzi, whose Toro Rosso came to a halt in the middle of the road, engine dead. The safety car came out for a couple of laps, after which Alonso and Schumacher began to distance themselves from the rest, with only Massa able to keep them vaguely in sight.

After the race, the Michelin runners said they had been caught out by ambient temperatures that were lower than expected, and that they had chosen too hard a tire compound. Whatever, there seemed little to choose between the Renault and the Ferrari in the early stages. “We were both,” commented Schumacher, “hard at it…”

Indeed they were. At the first stops Massa was still within four seconds of the leaders, the rest—led by Raikkonen—had fallen away. Schumacher stopped a lap later than Alonso, on lap 18, but this time around was not able to snick into the lead.

Throughout the second stint, they held station, the gap fluctuating a little—between half a second and 1.9—but when Alonso came in for his second stop, on lap 38, Schumacher put the hammer down. He didn’t, as before, pit on the following lap, or the one after that, and by the time he stopped on lap 41, he had done the damage that would win him the race.

As ever, Ferrari did its work perfectly, and this time, as Schumacher rejoined, it wasn’t even close. Suddenly, Alonso was nearly four seconds adrift, and the gap increased every time around.

The race was over and Alonso knew it. “I think we’re a bit down to Ferrari this weekend—for one thing, the tires were not perfect. I could hold the lead—just—through the first stops, but not the second. After that, it was a matter of [decreasing] the revs—this engine also has to race in Barcelona next weekend—and controlling Massa. It wasn’t a problem to do that,” he smiled, “even if it was a bit close at the end.”

It was certainly that. In the late stages, the second Ferrari closed up appreciably, and at the same time Raikkonen, after a relatively quiet race to that point, also began to catch Massa. At the flag, they were all of a bunch, but Alonso had everything covered, and dropped only two points to Schumacher. Under the circumstances he said he considered that “a great result for us.”

Others did not have a great result. Barrichello took a distant fifth for Honda, but teammate Button was eliminated with a blown engine, and so were Montoya and Ralf Schumacher, who had looked set for a reasonable finish for Toyota.

The youthful Rosberg put in a superb drive to seventh place—only a second behind Fisichella’s Renault—after starting from the very back.

In the end, though, the European Grand Prix was all about Michael Schumacher, still pondering his future, and saying that a decision is near. An eighth world championship would be an ideal closing hand in an unmatched career.



3.199-mile road course

May 7

1. Michael Schumacher, Ferrari, 60 laps at 119.974 mph avg. speed; 2. Fernando Alonso, Renault, 60; 3. Felipe Massa, Ferrari, 60; 4. Kimi Raikkonen, McLaren-Mercedes, 60; 5. Rubens Barrichello, Honda, 60; 6. Giancarlo Fisichella, Renault, 60; 7. Nico Rosberg, Williams-Cosworth, 60; 8. Jacques Villeneuve, Sauber-BMW, 60; 9. Jarno Trulli, Toyota, 59; 10. Nick Heidfeld, Sauber-BMW, 59;

11. Scott Speed, Toro Rosso-Cosworth, 59; 12. Tiago Monteiro, Midland-Toyota, 59; 13. Christijan Albers, Midland-Toyota, 59; 14. Ralf Schumacher, Toyota, 52 (engine); 15. Juan Pablo Montoya, McLaren-Mercedes, 52 (engine); 16. Takuma Sato, Super Aguri-Honda, 45 (hydraulics); 17. Franck Montagny, Super Aguri-Honda, 29 (hydraulics); 18. Jenson Button, Honda, 28 (engine); 19. Christian Klien, Red Bull-Ferrari, 28 (gearbox); 20. Mark Webber, Williams-Cosworth, 12 (hydraulics);

21. David Coulthard, Red Bull-Cosworth, 2 (accident); 22. Vitantonio Liuzzi, Toro Rosso-Cosworth, 0 (accident)

TIME OF RACE: 1h 35m 58.765s


FAST QUALIFIER: Alonso, 1m 29.819s

FAST LAP: M. Schumacher, 1m 32.099s

LAP LEADERS: Alonso, 1-16; M. Schumacher,17-18; Raikkonen, 19-23; Alonso, 24-37;M. Schumacher, 38-41; Raikkonen, 42-44;M. Schumacher, 45-60CAUTION PERIODS: 1-2, stranded car

POINT LEADERS: 1. Alonso, 44; 2. M. Schumacher, 31; 3. Raikkonen, 23; 4. Fisichella, 18; 5. (tie) Massa, Montoya, 15; 7. Button, 13; 8. R. Schumacher, 7; 9. (tie) Barrichello, Webber, Villeneuve, 6

NEXT: Spain, May 14 (1 p.m. Eastern, CBS)

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